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100 Years Later: Commemorating The Tulsa Race Massacre

Tulsa Race Massacre Anniversary
Photo Credit: Valerie Fields Hill

A group of Dallas women joined thousands of Oklahomans and others from across the nation in commemorating this weekend’s 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

On Friday, University of Texas at Arlington Adjunct Professor Pamela “Safisha” Hill, a Dallas resident, marched along North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa with fellow members of the African Ancestral Society, whose peers are from Dallas, Houston, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

“It was very spiritual…very emotional,” said Dr. Hill, who drove from her home to Tulsa Thursday afternoon to participate in Friday morning’s march and other weekend activities.

On Friday, many of Tulsa’s larger hotels downtown had sold out of rooms, Dr. Hill said, and some travelers were left looking for accommodations in nearby cities. Some of the travelers, she said, were Texans who flooded Tulsa to attend what some are describing as the largest commemoration of the race massacre in recent years.

“There’s more people from Dallas here. It’s more of us,” said Dr. Hill, who teaches Diverse Populations, Theories of Human Behavior and other courses in the School of Social Work at UTA. “I’m like ‘Where are the Tulsa people?’”

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African Americans in Tulsa and their regional allies from neighboring states – including a handful of social activists – have long commemorated the two days in 1921 when mobs of white men shot Black fathers, mothers and children and bombed their homes and businesses, decimating the entire prosperous Greenwood District in Tulsa.

Greenwood Cultural Center
Pamela “Safisha” Hill (r) // Photo Credit: Valerie Fields Hill

However, the circumstances of the May 21, 1921 massacre remained out of Oklahoma school and history books and largely obscured from historical societies documentation. The killings of the estimated 300 people, property bombings and looting were never criminally investigated by Oklahoma law authorities.

This year, the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Black Tulsans are joined by scores of white business owners, foundations and national corporations, who have poured millions of dollars into hosting commemorative lectures, sponsoring national discussions on race; building a Black Wall Street History Center; and putting on cultural and artistic events.

Ladyclaudia Nelson, 71, of Grand Prairie, has attended commemorative events in Tulsa for decades. None have been as extensive as this year’s slate, she said.

“It’s no longer a secret,” said Ms. Nelson, a retiree who drove alone to Tulsa late Thursday evening under severe and rainy conditions.

She was energized, she said, at the sheer size of the 2021 schedule of activities. “I saw vendors today. I saw stages. I’ve never seen that before.”

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Dr. Hill said Tulsa’s city and business leaders may have underestimated the interest from members of the national media, historians, academics, attorneys, social activists and others in this year’s commemorations.

Ms. Nelson said expanded media coverage of national conversations regarding race, restitution and reparations for past social injustices likely contributed to rising interest in the circumstances surrounding the Tulsa Massacre.

“The media has been dynamic, It’s a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

This weekend’s commemorative activities include Hollywood actors and activists who are participating to raise awareness of the 1921 Race Massacre – and to lobby Oklahoma and Congress for restitution for survivors.

The last living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre: Hughes Van Ellis, 100; Lessie Benningfeld Randle, 106; and Viola Ford Fletcher, 107 // Photo Credit: Valerie Fields Hill

Three known Greenwood residents, Hughes Van Ellis, who is 100 years old; Lessie Benningfeld Randle, 106; and Viola Ford Fletcher, Mr. Ellis’ older sister, who is 107; are the last living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The three survivors rode in a horse-drawn carriage down North Greenwood Street on Friday, leading the community’s Black Wall Street Legacy Festival kick-off march in which Dr. Hill and her fellow African Ancestral Society members participated.

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Other activities are planned throughout the weekend and next week.

This weekend, civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Lee Merritt, both of whom are considered legal rock stars among social activists seeking justice for families of Black men and women killed by police officers or in other high-profile racial situations, will speak.

Tuesday, June 1, Hollywood actor, author and philanthropist Hill Harper headlines a national conversation on economic empowerment. Thursday, June 3, renowned Professor Cornel West will address racial historical trauma and the continued effects of the massacre on Black Americans.

Roland Martin and Dr. Safisha Hill

On June 6, international composer, trumpeter and band leader Wynton Marsalis is scheduled to perform at the Tulsa Symphony.

“The programs this year are extensive,” Ms. Nelson said, as she headed out late Friday to a speaker engagement. “We’ve always had the discussions of reparations; but the name-brand people associated with it (this year) is wonderful.”

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred over two days, May 31, 1921 through June 1, 1921, and resulted in the decimation of more than 1,400 homes and businesses in Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood District, which had become home to thousands of affluent Black residents and entrepreneurs.

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On the evening of May 31, 1921, mobs of white men shot, beat and killed Black men, women and children, looted their businesses and set fire to 36 blocks of homes, churches, theaters, banks, groceries and other property in the Greenwood District. By most accounts, up to 300 African Americans were killed and buried in mass graves. Thousands of Black Tulsans fled the city never to return.

The killings began when Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, accused Dick Rowland, 19, an African American shoe shiner, of “offending” her. She told police, according to media accounts, that Mr. Rowland had touched her, implying that she had been sexually assaulted.

Rowland was arrested and the city’s two newspapers, the morning edition of the Tulsa World and the afternoon edition of the Tulsa Tribune reported the incident and, according to African American historians, inflamed racial tensions. The Tribune reported that a lynching would occur on the night of May 31.

That night, scores of white men gathered at the city jail, became riled and some were deputized by the local police chief.  For the next two days, the mobs set fires to structures and randomly shot and killed residents. Airplanes dropped bombs, survivors said, killing scores of residents and destroying the structures and buildings in the Greenwood District.

“It was a travesty,” Ms. Nelson said. “A war was declared on another people. It was declared on U.S. residents.”

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“It’s heart rendering to hear them describe that,” she said, adding that she plans to drive the 284-miles from Dallas to Tulsa every year until Oklahoma’s state government and federal government acknowledge the atrocity and pays reparations to survivors.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

For more information on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa’s Greenwood District and other “Black Wall Streets,” see the links below: 

Upcoming events and activities in TulsaGreenwood Cultural Center https://greenwoodculturalcenter.com/calendar-of-events

Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre television premiereAirs Sunday, May 30, on History Channel
https://play.history.com/specials/tulsa-burning-the-1921-race-massacre/trailer-tulsa-burning-the-1921-race-massacre

Educator Resources for Teaching about the 1921 Tulsa Race MassacreJohn Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation: From Tragedy to Triumph
https://www.jhfcenter.org/curriculum

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In Their Own Words: Meet the SurvivorsJohn Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation https://www.jhfcenter.org/1921-race-massacre-survivors

The Smithsonian MagazineAn Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-lost-manuscript-contains-searing-eyewitness-account-tulsa-race-massacre-1921-180959251/

Actor, Author and Philanthropist Hill Harper and the Black Wall Street App https://theblackwallstreet.com/

The Black Wall Street Times
https://theblackwallsttimes.com/

TIME Magazine Beyond Greenwood: The Historic Legacies of Black Wall Streets
https://time.com/6050811/tulsa-black-wall-street/

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